Trumpeting the reissue of the Magnetic Fields’ The Wayward Bus nearly five years ago, I heaped immoderate praise on band leader Stephin Merritt. OK, I hedged a bit on his future prospects, but still I wrote, “I don’t think I’m being rash when I say that based on what he has already done, Stephin Merritt is not a mere ’90s underground curiosity, but one of the most ambitious and significant songwriters of the 20th century.” I knew at the time that closing with “of his generation” would be safer, but that wasn’t the way I felt then.

And it sure as hell isn’t the way I

feel now.

Ascribe blame as you see fit. Call me pissy. Say it’s work. Or the waning of summer. Or the end of Survivor. Chalk up my funk to the fact that my brand-new ukulele popped its bridge and sent it flying behind the guest bed, and now I’ve got to drive to Staten Island to get the damn thing fixed. Whatever. I’m in the midst of a rather wrenching change of heart, and it didn’t start yesterday.

While everyone else was busy playing catch-up in last year’s critics polls by sending the Fields’ three-disc 69 Love Songs into the Top 10, I was wondering whether Merritt wasn’t beginning to get a little facile and lazy on us. He was still putting out, sure, but he wasn’t even trying to make it feel like the first time. It had become easy to picture him plowing through his home studio like a bleary-eyed first-person-shooter fiend cruising in God mode: Think that’s not a song? Check the corpse, asshole.

We can be glad that the original plan for 69 Love Songs, a hundred-song revue to be sung by drag queens, never came to fruition, whatever the appeal of its staging. But Merritt’s finally gotten his cabaret, albeit a wizened and withdrawn one. Hyacinths and Thistles, the second album from the 6ths, a side project featuring guest vocalists applying themselves to his songs, consists largely of burlesques on the figure of the jaded but vulnerable entahtainah. Each number tries to be the sort of breather that comes two-thirds of the way through an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, when the major song stylist moves downstage left, to the stool in the puddle of light, cocks a leg up on the rung, and tells the people about the last time Lady Luck turned bitch on him. The orchestra in shadow, he’s accompanied only by the soulful piano man.

Ever since the early Magnetic Fields discs with vocalist Susan Anway, Merritt has assumed the role of director as much as producer and songwriter. He used to prod his voice boxes into flat, unimpassioned takes. Now he’s going faux-naive, turning singers into un-singers and backing them with the detached, solitary twinklings of toy piano, zither, or autoharp. He throws the vocals way up in the mix, highlighting the flaws (slides onto pitch, stilted phrasing that compensates for the absence of rhythm instruments) he has had his guests cultivate. Although what on first hearing seems slapdash gains intention with repeat plays, the results nonetheless disappoint, ranging from simply horrific (Odetta, singing in character and sounding like Operaman on a bender as she mourns a wartime fling to the wheezing of Daniel Handler’s accordion on “Waltzing Me All the Way Home”) to pleasant but pointless (Squirrel Nut Zipper Katharine Whalen, Lady Day-ing it up on “You You You You You”—rhymes with “have no use for Madeleine Peyroux”) to affecting but mannered and strained (Melanie—yes, that one—as a raspy, faded lush, taking “I’ve Got New York” in the brand-new key of Ouch).

This time out, Merritt has at least found conceptual justification for the deliberate underproduction that marred 69 Love Songs, but he clearly could use a rest. Assuming nobody’s going to give him a big grant, complete with the stipulation that he take three years to make his next record, how about compiling all his place-name songs into Travelogue: The World of Stephin Merritt as a stopgap? London, Paris, and New York might be overrepresented, but who tires of those swingin’ locales?

Treading worn ground has indeed become a problem for Merritt. The clichés he’s pushing around are no longer the exclusive property of Tin Pan Alley. The endless parade of moons, stars, diamonds, and lovers are now his own lucky charms; it doesn’t look as if he’ll ever again put pencil to paper without them. Years ago, he wrote a knowing little Formulist Manifesto, which touted the benefits of playing by pop’s rules. Back then it was funny; today it’s just sad. Whereas once he sustained albumlong tours de force shaped by self-imposed constraints, now he’s lucky to have a moment of brilliance flash on the surface of a single song. This time out, the hook of “Kissing Things,” as sung by Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell, gets the nod.

It can’t be a good sign that the highlight of Hyacinths and Thistles involves no words at all, and precious little musicianship. After we’ve tired of the tongue-twisted faltering of Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori on the L- and R-filled “Lindy-Lou” and the lugubrious swagger Divine Comedian Neil Hannon brings to “The Dead Only Quickly” (whose punning title is the best thing about it), we can take comfort that nearly half of the disc’s 61 minutes belong to “Oahu,” a song whose coda consists of 25 minutes of a sequencer drifting off to sleep.

“Hopeless,” which receives a bouncy remix on I’m Lonely (And I Love It)—the recent EP from Future Bible Heroes, Merritt’s collaboration with Boston DJ Christopher Ewen—may be the best thing Merritt has written in years. An incisive, imagistic song of rutted blue-collar love in the same league as Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July,” it assays the protracted endgame of an affair, when commitment—or maybe it’s just habit—is stronger than desire. Merritt’s forlorn lyrics drag against Ewen’s soaring chorus and bubbly beat-bed (guaranteed to bring out the bucket-seat diva in anyone). Meanwhile, the sound of the singer’s tacit dreams twists itself into a snare that holds her fast in the explicit mundanity of her words. Of course, the song was just as stirring in 1997, when it appeared on the Memories of Love long-player and on the Lonely Days EP, where Merritt replaced Claudia Gonson’s vocals with his own.

Lest “Hopeless”‘s success argue for simply relegating Merritt to the lyricist slot and allowing Ewen to compose and arrange all his tunes into would-be club anthems, it should be noted that Merritt is at his schticky peak as a self-flagellating hack on the remainder of this outing. He gives us another song of the 50th state (“My Blue Hawaii”), and on “Café Hong Kong,” he mixes two beloved commonplaces. (Well, two in the title; several more pollute the lyric.) Then there’s the self-parody of the title track and “Good Thing I Don’t Have Any Feelings,” both of which he’ll regret as soon as the celebrity roast comes back into vogue. Oh, what a lonely boy.

Last year, Merritt sang, “The book of love is long and boring.” I never thought I’d start believing it so soon. CP